“The Democratic National Convention is happening under a police state.” — Walter Cronkite, in a real clip from the film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”
The Trump administration is gone, but no one knows when the Trump era will end. As America anticipates the fresh start of President Joe Biden’s administration, a look backwards might help us with the visibility looking forward.
In watching two Netflix films, I saw parallel Trump-era inferences as they depicted historical events of the last 50 years, and I think it’s a healthy prism through which to recognize current realities. Question is: How much have things really changed?
In “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and series “The Crown,” narrative comparisons are made between current “cultural wars” and the political divide and dissent c. 1969, on the one hand, and events of the American and British political rifts of recent two to five years, on the other.
Substitute “the Inauguration in Washington, D.C.,” for the Chicago in the Cronkite clip. Lockdown upon lockdown was the necessary post-Capitol siege reality in the nation’s capital (the crowds in the streets in 1969 Chicago being one big difference).
Expressing a contemporary sentiment, one of the young Chicago 7 defendants says, “It’s been years since I’ve had any idea what’s going on.”
The focus here will be on the Chicago 7 story, but a similar storytelling dynamic from the same point in history happens in “The Crown” with the struggles of the monarchy as well as the leaders in Parliament, c. 1970.
In both stories, echoing our current day, the challenge is sustaining a buffeted and changing nation.
“The Crown” narrative points directly to Britain’s current Brexit chokehold and its relationship with its allies, Europe in particular. It’s no accident that the program reminds us that barely five decades ago the UK was trying to convince France to let it into the “European Economic Community,” while in 2021 we know that a complex divorce, a “let us out” has painfully transformed Europe.
American pain is seen in closeup. In “Chicago 7” there’s a short but pointed shot in the courthouse steps scene of a protester holding up a “Lock Them Up” sign at Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman and company — clearly invoking the “lock ‘em up” mantra heard so often since 2016.
In that same scene someone hurls an egg at defendant Jerry Rubin, who deftly catches it intact — an oddly precise reaction by the radical who is mostly portrayed as a shaggy stoner doofus. Abbie Hoffman says, “How did you do that?”
“I’ve had a lot of practice,” Rubin replies, looking around as if to return the egg to sender, but holding onto it.
Then Hoffman says, “You don’t know what do with that egg, do you?”
I believe the filmmakers conveyed a direct message to the “Chicago 7” audience, in a mid-film scene where a juror is allowed to withdraw after her family is allegedly threatened by the Black Panthers. (The threat being clearly an FBI fake.) The defense attorneys had tabbed the young woman as a likely acquittal vote because she had made a point of carrying a book by James Baldwin, the Black author of the 1963 book "The Fire Next Time" and the 1955 semi-autobiographical "Go Tell It On The Mountain."
As the scared young woman leaves the judge’s chambers, attorney Leonard Weinglass tells her, “Keep reading James Baldwin.”
“Chicago 7” is about standoffs, tests of will between opponents and among colleagues, in a tragic, chaotic time. Hayden and the rest aspire to helping make greater foundational changes akin to Black Lives Matter aspirations. If there is to be a George Floyd feature film, would that we had Baldwin around to write the screenplay.
In 2020, the year of BLM, it’s been often said that one of the best ways to understand systematic racism is to read anything by Baldwin.
In a Jan. 19 NPR interview, filmmaker Ken Burns quotes Baldwin as saying that he felt insulted by the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence — “all men are created equal.”
Baldwin had said, “That’s not for me. You know, for Black Americans, the Statue of Liberty is a bitter joke, meaning nothing to us.”
“ … To stand against the enemy … and against everything and everybody … that wants to cut down my soul’.” — John in “Go Tell It On The Mountain.”
Keep reading James Baldwin.
But the problem seems to be, who are people really reading — or watching or listening to?
Michael Scherer, writing in the Washington Post on Jan. 19, suggested that most Americans, including Trump voters, “are willing to change the channel on the dystopian present.”
He reports the words of Stephanie Cutter, co-chairman of the Biden inauguration: “Given recent events, there is more willingness on the other side of the aisle to reset and protect our democratic norms than there has been for more than four years.”
Changing the channel seems overly simplistic given the raw number of channels Americans are tuned to. And does the “across the aisle” concept of bipartisanship really apply when considering the splintered body politic? What is the chasmic dynamic we are all dealing with? Truth. Not “my” or alternate truth. Simply truth. It is there if we but admit that truth is more important than tribe.
“We are in a toxic moment that needs a kind of discipline … None of us are on the same page,” Burns said “... but we don’t get our information from the same place the way we used to. And that has had a poisonous effect on our democracy.”
It would appear that is what we are seeing in “social media” and the toxic rise of alt.right news, media based on fabrications and willful perpetuation of falsehoods that so many people seem to see perhaps just once and accept as a distorted or mythical “reality.”
In four short years we have gone from a point where reliable information began to be wrongly dismissed as “fake news” to an era of faked-news accepted by millions as reliable. Beyond that we have seen it accepted as gospel to rally around.
And with and beyond "QAnon" and the rise of the poorly-named messaging app "Telegram," things are just getting darker.
Yet, a spot of hope. When it comes to addressing the ugly fact of the lies that now dominate our social fabric, one of the more cogent pieces of political commentary I have seen was in an unlikely place: The Jan. 19 “Wizard of Id” a cartoon, which I sense of late has been striving for a comics’ page adult-in-the-room status.
“They say if you repeat a lie enough people will start to believe it,” the knight Rodney says to the King as they look out over the people massed below. The King leans over and announces, “The King of Sweden wants to steal your firstborn children and use them as horse feed!” And from the crowd, an all-caps “GHASP.”
The King turns to Rodney and says, “Nowadays you don’t have to repeat it.”
Can that be true of our modern “discourse”? That the adage “repeat it enough times” has been accelerated — or adulterated — to where the intake and acceptance of an idea is immediate?
What can the positive be, then? If the collective mentality has been shorn of the need to be gradually conditioned to “hear it seven times before you remember,” could the reverse be true? Can it also mean that a person could hear something valid and rational one time and accept it as fact, just as the Id cartoon suggests? I believe we have seen indications that toxicity has been internalized in this way. I like to think that a heightened reactive instinct to absorb a negative and false belief can work as quickly when met with a positive and factual input.
Ken Burns noted that historian Barbara Fields said that “The Civil War is still being fought, and regrettably it can still be lost.” Burns quotes Fields, a Black American, quoting William Faulkner, “history is not was but is.” Burns adds, “Which is a guiding principle for all the ways we’ve tried to tell our complex and contradictory and sometimes confounding stories.
“The Civil War did not solve a lot of things but changed the nature of who we were before the United States … the Civil War, with its death and destruction, with all its unresolved work, it made us an is.”
When Confederate flags show up unchallenged in small town parades -- here in the Gorge included -- and seditiously serve as vanguard banners in the nation’s capital insurrection, when the Stars and Bars and Nazi symbols are brazenly borne at holiday events and during attempted coups, we know that the War is not over and the new battle is not just for civil discourse and reconciliation, but for the soul of the nation. Fields and others have argued that Reconstruction ended not in 1876 nor 1896, nor has it truly ever ended.
Alas, toxic ideas gaining widespread acceptance is indeed the result of repetition, of the echo chamber of right-wing social media, goaded by the GOP and the former 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue occupant and his faithful minions. And it is that power-enabled echo chamber that has spawned the embryo of a new civil war.
Id in psychoanalytic terms is “the part of the mind where innate instinctive impulses and primary responses are located,” in the definition I read, as well as “the conflict between the drives of the id and the demands of the cultural superego.” We’ve seen the superego alright.
Now, will we know what to do with the egg?